The Europeans discovered the Papaya in the West Indies in the mid-16th century and introduced the plant to the western world. The Papaya is believed to be native to southern Mexico, neighboring Central America and the West Indies. Papayas are now present in every tropical and subtropical country. The Papaya usually grows to a height of 10-12 feet.
Papayas have exacting climate requirements for vigorous growth and fruit production. They must have warmth throughout the year and will be damaged by light frosts. Brief exposure to 32° F is damaging and prolonged cold without overhead sprinkling will kill the plants. Cold, wet soil is usually lethal. Cool temperatures will also alter fruit flavor.
There are two types of papayas: Hawaiian and Mexican.
- The Hawaiian varieties are the Papayas commonly found in supermarkets. These pear-shaped fruit generally weigh about 1 pound and have yellow skin when ripe. The flesh is bright orange or pinkish, depending on variety, with small black seeds clustered in the center. Hawaiian papayas are easier to harvest because the plants seldom grow taller than 8 feet.
- The Mexican papayas are much larger than the Hawaiian types and may weigh up to 10 pounds and be more than 15 inches long. The flesh may be yellow, orange or pink. The flavor is less intense than that the Hawaiian papaya but still is delicious and extremely enjoyable. They are slightly easier to grow than Hawaiian papayas. A properly ripened papaya is juicy, sweetish and somewhat like a cantaloupe in flavor, although musky in some types. The fruit (and leaves) contain papain which helps digestion and is used to tenderize meat. The edible seeds have a spicy flavor somewhat reminiscent of black pepper.